Gorilla trek in the wild: My top travel experience

A question I often get asked is “Where was the best place you’ve visited”.  Now there’s no easy answer to that because I firmly believe there is something special and unique about every place on the planet!  What I tend to say is “My top travel experience so far was my gorilla trek”.

Most people I speak to, haven’t had that experience and if you are one of them, you need to make this top of your bucket list.

Mountain gorillas are critically endangered.  There are approximately 800 left in the wild.  So, putting it off may mean you miss out on an experience of a lifetime.

Female Mountain gorilla in Rwanda

Why should you go on a gorilla trek?

There’s something about gorillas that will have you spellbound.  Personally, I think it’s the fact that we share around 96-98% of our genetic makeup with them.  This becomes apparent to you as soon as you are in their company.   They size you up the way any human would with a stranger entering their private sanctuary.  The fact that they could kill you if they wanted to also makes it somewhat thrilling!  It is a magical encounter you will remember for the rest of your life.

Mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda
Toni on a gorilla trek in Rwanda

Where are the gorilla treks?

One of the reasons Mountain gorillas are so endangered is because they only live in one very specific area.  That area is the volcanic mountains that sit on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  As the DRC is politically volatile, it’s not the most popular place to go gorilla trekking.  Rwanda and Uganda are the two most popular places.  Uganda offers the cheapest permits which is why most tour companies will include the trek from here.   The Uganda side also has the highest numbers of gorillas of the three countries.  The downside is that the gorillas tend to be further away which means a longer day of trekking.  Rwanda is a much more expensive permit but typically speaking, there is less hiking involved.  I went in Rwanda and didn’t have to hike far at all.

What is the hike like?

I’m not going to lie.  Volcanoes National Park is a mountain range covered in thick, impenetrable jungle.  It’s one of the toughest terrains you’ll ever encounter.  One of the girls on our gorilla trek stood in a mud puddle that was so deep and viscous that it literally pulled her hiking boot right off her foot!  There are stinging nettles and bugs to watch out for and there are absolutely no trails or paths.  In the words of Axel Rose, Welcome to the Jungle!

So you might be thinking, “why would I put myself through this?”.  Because it’s totally worth it.  Trust me. 

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Mother gorilla with baby

How long will it take?

How long is a piece of string?  The thing with seeing animals in the wild is that they don’t run on schedules.  You might get lucky and only have an hour hike or you might be unlucky and have a 9 hour hike.  The rangers do their best to track the gorillas to minimise the time you have to spend bashing through the jungle but the gorillas can move when they like.  A troop (that’s what a group of gorillas is called) will typically have a territory of around 41 square Kms (16 square miles).  I was incredibly lucky and only had a 1 hour walk through some rice paddy fields followed by about 30 minutes through the jungle.

Is it safe?

Every gorilla trek is accompanied by a couple of ranger guides – one to lead the way and one to bring up the rear.  These guys are armed with rifles and the knowledge of how to interact with the gorillas.  Without them, it would be extremely dangerous.  One of the biggest threats to the Mountain gorillas is poachers and this is why the guides are armed.  There is a lot of effort put into keeping the poachers away but with such rugged terrain, it’s not an easy task.  So, to answer the question, there are plenty of measures in place to secure your safety but there’s no such thing as a 100% guarantee.  My personal opinion on this is that if it’s your time to go, it will happen no matter what you are doing so you might as well be doing something incredible!

Gorilla in Rwanda

Which tour company should you do your gorilla trek with?

There are a huge number of companies operating Gorilla treks but here are a few that I trust:

Seeing Mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is hands down, the best travel experience I’ve had to date.  I cannot put into words just how incredible it feels to be in their presence.  It’s a memory I will treasure forever and I hope one day I can get back there and experience it again.  No two visits are the same so if you have been blessed to have this experience too, please share your story in the comments!

Happy travels,

Toni

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